When it comes to piercing ears, I have two distinct memories. First, my own experience in first grade when my mom and grandmother took me to Claire’s at Northgate Mall on my seventh birthday. I was scared, but my excitement far exceeded my fears. I held my breath, vowing not to cry, as the piercer used an earring gun to shoot tiny gold heart-shaped studs into my tender lobes.
I don’t remember the pain, but I remember how special and grown-up I felt. In that moment, I became part of the earring-wearing gang. No one was as cool as me, just look at the photo evidence.
Each night I’d take my rubbing alcohol-soaked cotton ball and carefully dab my newly pierced ears while twisting the studs ever so gently. I really, really wanted those earrings, and so I did whatever I had to do to make sure they stuck around.
Now that I have daughters of my own, and the oldest is quickly approaching 6, I am wondering when is the right time? Do I do as my mom did and wait until first grade? Do I take her now because she asks every single time she sees me put on my own earrings?
Should I be kicking myself for not just doing it when she was a baby?
Some moms think so. Mother of three, Melissa Wallace of Dallas, Texas, is one such believer. She chose to pierce her daughters’ ears when they were infants after speaking to their pediatrician.
“Our pediatrician informed me that infants tend to have less complications of infection because the parent is caring for them, plus it’s not traumatic like it can be for a school-aged kid,” Wallace said.
But, the answer is not always a simple question of ease or safety. Often, it is a matter of cultural significance as well. Eleni Gage wrote a piece for The New York Times in which she discussed her own decision to get her half-Nicaraguan daughter’s ears pierced when the baby was 6 months old.
“Where her father is from, they pierce the ears of female infants in the hospital as a matter of course, much the way the circumcision of male infants is handled in the United States,” Gage wrote. “It is traditional for a baby girl’s godparents and relatives to give her earrings as a symbol of how adored she is.”
And, this is true in many cultures, especially Latin and Indian. I spoke with moms from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Colombia and India who echoed Gage’s statement. All believed piercing a baby’s ears at birth (or shortly thereafter) is an important part of their culture.
In fact, those mamas from countries where piercing at birth in the hospital is customary found the U.S. hospital no-pierce policies frustrating.
Catalina Carvajal was born in Colombia and had her ears pierced at birth. When she wanted to do the same for her baby girl, she was surprised to learn that she couldn’t in Bentonville, Arkansas, where she now lives.
“I was really frustrated I couldn’t pierce my daughter’s ears after she was born. I had to wait until her first shots, and I pierced them right after,” Carvajal says. “I think it is a cultural thing to do and parents need to follow their beliefs and their customs.”
Mom of two, Mayte Suarez of Atlanta, Georgia, says she agrees. She was shocked when she found out it’s not customary to pierce baby girls’ ears at birth in the U.S. Born in Mexico, Suarez said most of the babies there leave the hospital with pierced ears.
“They’ll ask you and the nurses will do it as a side business,” Suarez said. “I personally like it because you can tell when a baby is a boy and when it’s a girl.”
But, not everyone sees this practice as a good thing. Many moms question whether it is fair to make this kind of choice for young girls. There is even a petition in the U.K. to ban ear piercing for babies and toddlers, and it has garnered over 80,000 signatures
Other parents prefer to hold off on ear piercing until their daughters are old enough to decided for themselves.
“I feel very strongly that my daughters should be able to choose since this is a permanent cosmetic change to their body,” Rogers, Arkansas, mom Krystina Pepper said.
The feminist in me understands this whole “it’s her body, she should get to decide” mentality—but let’s face it, this is just one choice in a whole string of choices we make for our kids. We don’t exactly ask our infants what they want to wear, or eat, or if they’d like to keep their foreskin. We make decisions based on what we think is best.
And, earrings aren’t a risky behavior. It’s not like a sleep issue or a car seat issue—babies and young girls who wear earrings aren’t less safe. Plus, earrings really aren’t that permanent, are they? If a child decides later she doesn’t want her ears pierced, she can just let the holes close up.
All these varied opinions made me wonder, what really is best when it comes to our kids’ little lobes?
Turns out there is no right answer. I asked dozens of moms to talk to me about their own earring-piercing journeys—both as young girls themselves and now as mothers to daughters—and the answers and experiences were as vastly different as each individual.
While some moms were hard-core “Team Infant,” the other half vowed to wait until their kids were ready. But, what is ready?
Even the American Academy of Pediatrics gives no clear-cut advice. They say as long as the piercing is administered carefully and the ears cared for, there is little to no risk at any age. But, they go on to recommend waiting until a child is old enough to take care of the piercing herself.
And, exactly how old is that, AAP? Last time I checked, there is no test for ear-care readiness.
Just ask Amanda Champlin of Bentonville, Arkansas. She took her responsible 6- and 9-year-old daughters to get their ears priced as a back-to-school surprise because she thought they were ready.
“But, boy I was wrong. Maddie was so scared to let us put her earrings back in after she had to take them out for a soccer game and her holes closed up immediately,” Champlin said. “Kenzie couldn’t stop fidgeting with hers and after too much pulling on one, the back got stuck completely inside her ear and had to be taken to the ER for removal.”
So, maybe all those moms who pierce their babies are onto something. One could easily argue that parents taking charge of the critical-care period—when mom can do all the twisting and cotton swabbing for them—is surely better than a 6-, 9- or even 16-year-old girl trying to do it herself.
Which finally leads me back to my second piercing memory. When I was 16 and “responsible,” I pierced my neighborhood friend Dougie’s ear with a needle, an ice cube and a potato. If that sounds like the beginning of a joke, it was. It turned out Dougie’s dad wasn’t a huge fan of our artistic statement, and so that stunt goes down as the shortest-lived piercing in history.
My takeaway on all this pierce-or-not-to-pierce drama? Sometimes we are ready before our kids might be. And, sometimes, as Dougie and I proved, our kids are ready before we are.
Whatever you decide—bling or no bling—if you are doing what you truly believe is best for your kid, you probably can’t go wrong.